I’m a level 8 Shadow Elf Bard and I just can’t keep out of trouble. If you asked my party, they’d say I’m worse than Jaskier from The Witcher. During our latest campaign, while we were being chased by a wolf pack through the forest, I decided to stick on my wolf onesie and try to convince them I could be their Alpha, yet again I had to be saved by the Paladins. There’s nothing like D&D for a sense of escapism, and coming from a shitty stockbroker belt town in south-east England, I know why the Duffer Brothers have made D&D such an integral part of Stranger Things series.
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Table-top role-playing games have a depth that video games and television can only aspire to, anything can happen. There’s enough grief and heartbreak, frustration and confusion each Monday night at my house to put Game Of Thrones to shame. There’s very little else in life I have such an emotional investment in. So I wasn’t surprised that D&D was a focal point at the beginning of the latest series, which sees the introduction of The Hellfire Club and Dungeon Master is Eddie Munson. We see a montage of the Hellfire club fighting a Lich King intercut with Lucas winning the basketball state championship and the comparison is totally valid.
Dungeons & Dragons has been around since 1974 but it has never been more popular. In a post-lockdown world, it can be a great activity to spend time with your friends, but how easy is it for those keen to join a campaign to get involved? My first experience with D&D was on a midge infested Scottish family holiday in 1986 where my father ran a week-long campaign of the Middle Earth Role Playing Game, which lost its licence in 1999, but has recently been revamped by Free League Publishing as The One Ring, and I’ve been playing ever since. Fast-forward 35 years and watching the D20’s roll on the small screen is just part of the Dungeons & Dragons resurgence, where you’ll see groups playing weekly in every gaming café around the UK.
I’ve been playing RPGs for 36 years, but it’s never too late to start, in fact it’s much easier to convince your friends to get involved now they’ve seen D&D on Stranger Things. During the ’90s every goth I knew played Vampire: The Masquerade, but the scene in Stranger Things where Dustin and Mike try to find a willing participant for the Hellfire Club when Lucas drops out rings true, as until 5 years ago no one seemed interested. The cultural shift toward alternative as cool means now you’ll probably have enough friends interested in seeing what the fuss is about to start your own Hellfire Club from scratch. You’d best invest in the Starter Set, which includes an essential rules handbook, an introductory adventure, five pre-made character sheets (these save you lots of time and maths), and a set of dice. Role-playing can be serious stuff, but before you take your Shadow Elf Bard out for an adventure, you’ll want to confer with your party on how your characters might interact as the Dungeon Master sets the scene.
Getting the tone of your campaign right is important, and Dungeons & Dragons can be played by focusing on how you enjoy interacting as a group. Storytelling is always the foundation of a campaign, but lots of options to add innovation and intrigue, such as solving puzzles while exploring magical new worlds. Winning or losing isn’t a goal in this game as you build bonds collaborating towards shared goals and adventures. D&D breaks the self-imposed boundaries of everyday life and can counter the hostility of the real world. D&D can do wonders for your mental health, no wait for a referral on the NHS and cheaper than a private therapist, it’s a great way to build confidence and tackle anxiety.
Your most confident friend or family member will usually be volunteered to take on the role of the narrator and guide, called the Dungeon Master. An experienced DM can transport you and make your campaign a reality and a constantly evolving ecosystem. But starting out it’s much easier for them to run a pre-existing adventure and there’s even a Stranger Things D&D starter kit, so you can build your own adventure in Hawkins and venture into the Upside Down. Be sure to bring your own dice, pen, paper, and plan to defeat the Demogorgon.
The anthologies and books of pre-written scenarios that Wizards Of The Coast releases every couple of months are becoming increasingly inclusive and accessible – the next is released at the end of June and is called The Radiant Citadel. It includes 13 standalone adventures which will take your party through the mists of the ethereal plane to a crossroads of wonders and adventures. This will be the first book written entirely by people of colour and promises a very different take on the classic adventures, with writers drawing inspiration from their connections to various real-world cultures and mythologies.
There’s something here for everyone in the Level 1 adventure Salted Legacy, which is inspired by writer Surena Marie’s Thai heritage. You might end up fighting giant prawns, entering cooking competitions, and/or take part in a spicy pepper eating showdown. For more seasoned players a Level 11 adventure, Shadow of the Sun, allows your party to play as peacekeepers for the mighty angel Atash or make the choice to instead join the resistance, in a territory inspired by Ancient Persia.
As you become more confident as a party, you’ll be ready to craft your own adventure. The core rule books are the only books you really need to craft a full Dungeons & Dragons experience from scratch. The Player’s Handbook is a hardcover tome full of stunning art, maps, and references for detailed spells and abilities. These should always be easily accessible on your table, along with The Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual, so your Dungeon Master can quickly summon a Kobold’s statistics mid-adventure.
There are lots of other books to bulk your experience out with items and enemies, such as Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, which expand upon player equipment and introduce additional enemies and monsters as your adventure progresses.
Not sure how many books you can fit in your backpack? Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t have to be an analogue experience, there’s a digital toolkit from D&D Beyond. This mobile app gives you character creation and spell stats at the tip of your fingers which will allow you to start making characters with more personalised relationships, motivations, and temperaments.
If you’re not enrolled at Hawkins High, don’t worry, there are plenty of gaming cafés throughout the country hosting dedicated weekly D&D events you can join run by DMs with fully formed campaigns they are hoping you’ll be part of.
In Dungeons & Dragons, creative thinking is applauded, and players will often come up with some way of interacting with an adventure that the Dungeon Master will not have considered. Not every adventure needs to be about fighting monsters: one friend had a memorable campaign where the party formed a band – The Metal Kegs – who’ll play a wicked set at local taverns for room and board. RPGs often have their own subcultures and there are plenty of indie RPG publishers if you don’t fancy the High Fantasy of the Forgotten Realms. Younger punk rock loner Lucy would have loved Exalted Funeral’s web store, which is awash with RPGs that cover everything from Black Metal in Mork Borg to hating your dead-end job.
There’s something about D&D that fosters integrity and even the most casual group, after a few sessions, can have an immersive, entertaining campaign and captivating lifelong hobby. But for now the Forbidden Realms will have to wait as I spend the Jubilee weekend binging the final episodes of Stranger Things and drinking a shot every time the subtitles say squelch.
Haven’t caught up on Stranger Things just yet? Check out our season 4 part 1 review here.